How To Become An Idea Machine

Kelly Francis ‏@KellyFrancisLaw: How do you know when you’re thinking too big or aiming too high (if that’s even possible)?


In the mid-90s I had an idea that lasted about the amount of time it takes to drink two beers. I say this because I had the idea at a bar and it was quickly squashed by the two friends I was with.

I wanted to create a reality cable channel. All reality TV all the time. Reality TV was just beginning. “MTV’s The Real World” and HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” were the only real two successful examples at that point. The day before, I had gone to a seminar at the Museum of Television and Radio about “The Real World”. All of the guests of my favorite season (but not Puck or Pedro, who was dead) were there answering questions. I felt reality TV was a cheap way to produce TV and people would get obsessed by it, particularly if sex was involved.

(The SF Cast of “The Real World”)

“What a dumb idea,” a friend  said. “There’s only so much reality.” Which strikes me as funny now.

The other guy said, “you’re not a big TV company. How will you get the cable companies to go for the idea?”

So I never thought about it again. I put up a fence around the idea and decided I would not be able to leap over that fence to execute on the idea. Now EVERY television channel is basically all reality all the time, or at least 50% of the time.

My real problem was: I didn’t have confidence. And I didn’t know what the next step was. In retrospect, I should’ve written down my idea, written down ten ideas for possible shows to launch with,  and started pitching TV companies to get someone to partner with me on it. That would’ve been simple and not taken too much time before there was some payoff.

Note: what might be too big for you (thinking of the next step) might not be too big for someone else (they might easily know, and not be afriad of, what the next step is).

Two examples:

I was first asked a similar question a few months ago and I replied that an idea would be too big if you can’t think of the next step. I then added that  if I wanted to start an airline with more comfortable seats and internet access and better food and cheaper prices I might have a hard time because even if it were a good idea I wouldn’t know what to do next.

Then I read about Richard Branson.

When Virgin Records was making him a tidy profit of about $15 million a year he decided there should be a more comfortable cross-atlantic airline. What the hell did he know about making an airline? Nothing. Not only that, airlines are a difficult business.  Three of the best investors in history: Howard Hughes, Carl Icahn, and Warren Buffett have crashed and burned buying airlines. Warren Buffett once said something like “that the best way to end up with a billion is to start with two and buy an airline. ”

And yet Branson came up with the idea and that very day he called up Boeing to find out what it would cost to lease an airplane. He made a great deal with them that if it didn’t work out he could return the airplane. Else if it did work  out, he’d be a great customer for them. I’m assuming he made a similar call to Airbus and took the best deal. He then probably found out what it cost to lease space in the various airports he would need to use. They were probably happy with more business. And then, I’m guessing, he hired some pilots, some ground crew, and put an ad in the paper advertising his new air routes and he was in business.

Virgin Air is successful (I just flew it from NY to LA a few weeks ago) and has since spun off Virgin Galactic. So this scruffy kid who started a record label is now sending rocketships into space.

Note the important thing: the day he came up with the idea  he also called Boeing and got a plane from them. So he took the next step. For me, I would’ve convinced myself that the “next step” in starting an  airline was too big for me. And then it would’ve been too big for me. This is not quite the same as “the secret” – the idea that our thoughts can create our reality but…they do. If you think you can do something, if you have confidence, if you have creativity (developed by building up your idea muscle discussed in many other posts here), the big ideas become smaller and smaller. Until there is no idea too big. Nothing you can’t at least attempt.

On a much smaller scale I can state a few examples of my own but I’ll stick with one. I had an idea to create a financial news site that didn’t have any news but was just a site made up of various methods to come up with investment ideas. In particular, by piggybacking the investment ideas of the greatest investors. I spec-ed out the site the morning I had the idea, I put the spec on, several developers contacted me with prices, and I hired one of them. Within a few weeks, version 1.0 of the site was released, 7 months later and millions of unique users later, I sold the profitable company to

So the question is not necessarily, “when is an idea too big” it’s: “how do I make all ideas smaller and achievable”. You do this by developing the idea muscle:

A) Every day, read/skim, chapters from books on at least four different topics. For myself this morning I read from a biography of Mick Jagger, I read a chapter from “Regenesis”, a book on advances in genetic engineering, a topic I know nothing about. I read a chapter in “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed. Her recent book, “Wild” is an Oprah pick and was also excellent.  I read a chapter from “Myths to Live By” by Joseph Campbell, and  I, to waste time, I played a game of chess online.

(the young Jagger. Stay tuned for upcoming post).

B) Write down ten ideas. About anything. It doesn’t matter if they are business ideas, book ideas, ideas for surprising your spouse in bed, ideas for what you should do if you are arrested for shoplifting, ideas for how to make a better tennis racquet, anything you want. The key is that it has to be ten or more.

You want your brain to sweat.

To hurt to come up with more and more ideas. One possibility right now is to list ten ideas that are “too big for me” and what the next steps might be. For instance, one idea might be “launch solar panels into outerspace to more efficiently generate solar power”. Another idea might be, “genetically engineer a microbe that sucks the salt out of water”. I have no idea if that’s even possible. Another idea might be, “within one year I am going to write a book and give away a million copies for free”.

The first step would be to write the book. Then maybe I can crowd fund on kickstarter to give the book away for free. OR, I can maybe print  up nano-sized copies of the book so that you can only read it with a microscope but it would only cost me a couple of sheets of paper to print up a million copies. And so on. With the solar panels, I can call up SpaceX and see how much it would cost to rent space. For the microbe that desalinates…I have no idea. Can you help me?

You don’t ever have to look at these ideas again. The purpose is not to come up with a good idea. The purpose is to have 1000s of ideas over time. To develop the idea muscle and turn it into a machine.

C) Be a transmitter. Two farmers live side by side and drink their water from wells they’ve each built on their property. One farmer’s well runs out of water and he needs rain to come quickly or he will  die of thirst. The other farmer did the work and dug his well so an underground stream ran right into it. So his well was always filled with water and he never had to worry.

How do you create this underground stream?

By making sure the other parts of your life are in balance: you have no bad emotional situations/relationships happening or you are doing  your best to stay disengaged from them. You are keeping physically health, no drinking, eating well, sleeping well. And spiritually (a word I hate because of 200 years of meaningless connotations that have been applied to it but I can’t think of a better word), you realize that you can’t control everything in your life, cultivating a sense of surrender to the present moment as opposed to time traveling to your regrets of the past and your fears of the future.

D) Activate another part of your brain. I write every day. So sometimes I am  drawing too much water from the well, from that underground stream. Just like I wrote you need to diversify all aspects of your life, you also need to diversify your brain. The other day Claudia and I took a watercolor class. I haven’t watercolored in my life. We got there and the next thing I knew it was three hours later. My brain didn’t even notice the time passing. What did I have to show for it? The worst excuse for a sunset, some mountains, some clouds, ever watercolored. But my brain felt good.

Read More:  "The Ultimate Checklist" ... Follow this proven checklist to self-publish like a pro

E) Collisions. I have another blog post coming on this topic. Stay tuned.

F) No pressure. This is  similar to the “burnout” question that came up in my last post. Sometimes you plant seeds and not every seed works out and grows into a beautiful plant. In fact, very few do. If you pressure yourself that every seed will be the most amazingly beautiful plant in the world then you are going to set yourself up for burnout and disappointment. Sometimes I have to work on something and it’s enough to just jot down some ideas, or look at what I’ve done so far, and then set it down again. Get my subconscious working on it. (see below)

G) An exercise to get you get your subconscious working on an idea: I have a very strict routine every day. I wake up, read, write, exercise, eat, meetings (phone or live), then reverse the process: eat, write, read, sleep.

But sometimes when I need to rejuvenate a little bit I have to shake things up. Do something different.

Maybe take a walk at 5 in the morning instead of read. Maybe sleep in four hour shifts one day instead of eight hours straight. Maybe spend a day writing handwritten letters instead of going on the computer. Shaking things up makes the brain  say, “what the hell just happened?” And while the conscious brain is confused the subconscious slips in and drops off what it’s been working on while your conscious brain has been too busy. Write down your routine. Make it as detailed a possible. What can you change today?

H) List your childhood passions. When I was six years old I was passionately interested in both comic books and Greek mythology. In high school and college I took five years of French and spent some time in France (even had an office there with my first business). Right now I can’t remember a single word of French except for maybe “oui”. But I remember vividly almost every comic and book I read about Greek myths from when I was six. From the very first comic (the “legion of superheroes” had to come back in time and stay with Clark’s parents in Smallville) to every comic afterwards.

We only ever remember the things we are passionate about. Ultimately, these become the fields where  ideas  bloom and are harvested. Everything else dries up inside and dies.

Try to think back and think of all the things you ever were passionate about from the age of five on. You’ll be surprised how many things there were. And  how many ways these passions can now be cross-fertilized and mate with each other to provide your next set of passions and ideas.

I) Surf the Internet. I just saw an “infographic” (Infographics are quickly becoming the new blog posts) on how to be creative. It said “turn off the computer”. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes not. With the entire world of knowledge at our fingertips it sometimes is fun to get sucked down the rabbit hole like Alice and drift around in Wonderland. Some good places to start are braindroppings,, and (not safe for work), I might not get any ideas from what I see but seeds might be planted. I find that I get a similar feeling to when I go into the book store at a museum, pick out a bunch of books and sit down and skim through them. It tickles the brain and lights things up that may have been dormant.

J) Ugh, I can’t come up with the tenth idea on “how to exercise the idea muscle”. My brain is hurting too much. If you have more ideas for this, please put them in the comments.

Read More: How To Be The Luckiest Guy On the Planet in 4 Easy Steps. 

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  • Jeffrey

    Seems to me that defeats the purpose of “exercising” the brain…

    • Daniel

      actually it already exists (some shameless promotion) And the point of it is to encourage you to generate ideas rather than generating them for you.

  • Chimera

    awesome post. I struggle to come up with ideas and now I realize my mistake, which is I try to dismiss it if I think it is difficult to implement. Thanks to this post , I will exercise my idea muscle until it really hurts.

  • Chimera

    Good tips about the twitter search.I may follow your advice and do the same

  • Dawn Casey-Rowe

    Love this, not just for it’s zen connection to all of Japanese culture but for his dedication and mastery.

  • Dawn Casey-Rowe

    Yes. It’s all Zen.

  • Dawn Casey-Rowe

    You know what helped the most–“the waitress pad.” I always had the marble composition book so I couldn’t tear out the pages… My fault–I never stopped to write down the thought as it struck. Writing is a 4/5AM thing for me, but thinking sparks continuously. Always having something nearby ready for scribbling, and then crossing off the pages when I deal with them…biggest help in the world. I found a tiny leather notebook just big enough to fit in a back pocket or bag right next to his friend, the pen.

  • Dan Reznik

    James the energy (and cost, in fuel) that would take to lift up panels to space are prohibitive, and the gain in efficiency would be only about 30%. Better to just install them in the mojave. there’s plenty of room there.

    • Leonardo

      And their efficiency is pretty bad in the Mojave desert too…

  • Kevin Boggs

    3 exercises: 1. Explain your job to a friendly Martian or smart 3 year old kid. 2. Write a letter letter to the parents of a dead soldier as though you were Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama. 3. Go through 24 hours blindfolded.

  • Leonardo

    Aviation might be the field of human activity in which most financial resources have been burned. In my experience, the people who are consumed by a passion for airplanes don’t usually do very well, even as pilots, (like Hughes, who was a marvelous aviator, who built some great aircraft, but I don’t think ever made a penny from them, and almost was killed, several times); while guys like Branson and O’Leary (from RyanAir), who approached the field with a mental blank slate (so to speak) succeed.
    On a technical point: VirginGalactic doesn’t really go to space though. They do suborbital flights to 100,000 feet, at Mach 3.
    Good post though. Thanks,

  • Jeremy Seth Davis

    J) Be the expert. I
    just went to an event where I was the guest speaker. I came up with terrific ideas to share with
    the participants because I wanted I wanted to help them… and because the
    pressure of being the guest speaker forced me to be better than usual. It will be even better if I actually follow the
    advice that I gave to them.

  • greengo69

    You have many posts about ideas, but do you really think ideas are the critical differentiator – or it is execution? You must have done a great job of execution as well (on some things) – and that part is much harder for this chess expert than coming up with ideas – particularly when I’m taking on multiple projects, as you also recommend. What’s your insight(s) on execution beyond “Just do it”?

    • Steve

      Great come back question. I found the hyperventilating style to very off putting too. What kind of a life does someone have who behaves like a robot? Such BS.

    • Carter

      The idea is important in that you need something to execute. When every one is telling you success is in the execution, you become overwhelmed because you think how can I execute an idea that doesn’t exist. This post is any exercise in getting over that initial hurdle so that you can get to the hard and more important steps.

  • Kevin Redick

    Write, think, write, reflect, share, believe, & write

  • Liri PbP

    I won’t go as far to say that tv is bad, but I recently reduced the amount of tv I watched by a ton and now I rarely go without having a random book in my hand, on my recliner, on the couch, on the kitchen table, in the bathroom or by my bed. I just read bits and pieces at random and I feel my brain swelling like a muscle after lifting weights. What a great feeling! I can’t say I have ever felt so mentally stimulated before.

  • Chuck

    I got an idea the other day from watching a painting

  • Nico

    Not too long ago I wrote “How to overcome entrepreneur’s block”.

    It could be helpful

  • Bill

    Very cool ideas, Ben!

  • vickispuzzle

    I use this advice from Altucher over and over. Most liberating words given. what a present!!!

  • Ed Powell

    James, I just listened to your comments on the iPad mini today. You don’t get it do you? You can’t understand until you have been seduced by Apple. It’s not Kindle vs. iPad, it’s not about DEVICES. It’s really no comparision between a book reader versus Apple ecosystem… a continuously interacting NETWORK of devices, continuously updating while I sleep (even when THEY sleep) providing ubiquitious access to data and services. Maximum usability, ask my 4 yr old who took over my iPad 2 and seemed to already know how to use it! Maximum utility? The iPad is almost a SCEWDRIVER, indispensable around the house, in the office (now outnumbers Blackberrys) and in elementary and higher education. I don’t need 275,000 apps but it’s nice to have them. (I thought that I would use a dozen but I now NEED over 40.) How many robust PC-like apps run on the Kindle?

  • Bite

    If you don’t want to listen to a new song, listen to an album from a group that you like but haven’t listened to for a while. Everything old is new again.

  • ibcarp

    marijuana and mushrooms:)

  • Steven Ramsey

    Desalination with microbes.
    I asked a microbiologist friend.
    She sent this:
    Here is a quote from a paper by a famous Israeli scientist Dr. Aharon Oren.

    “The family Halomonadaceae (Gammaproteobacteria) almost exclusively contains halophiles. [Read the chloride in sodium chloride is a halide.] Halophilic microorganisms use two strategies to balance their cytoplasm osmotically with their medium. …The ‘high-salt-in strategy’ is not limited to the Halobacteriaceae. The Halanaerobiales (Firmicutes) also accumulate salt rather than organic solutes. A third, phylogenetically unrelated organism accumulates KCl: the red extremely halophilic Salinibacter (Bacteroidetes), recently isolated from saltern crystallizer brines. Analysis of its genome showed many points of resemblance with the Halobacteriaceae, probably resulting from extensive horizontal gene transfer. The case of Salinibacter shows that more unusual types of halophiles may be waiting to be discovered.” This is from a review published in Aquatic Biosystems in 2008.
    Bottom line is that it has not been done.

    Bugs can grow in really salty water or brine.
    Perhaps a bacteriologist could engineer something to suck up salt but then the question is: How much do they concentrate halides?
    And what would one do with the concentrated stuff to keep it out of the sea water?
    I guess one could remove the bacteria in some way.
    It would be one tough bacteria that likes brine but finds itself in more dilute sea water and so would try to concentrate the salt inside to feel at home and then NOT blow up osmotically.
    But you know…….It might work.

    • Steven Ramsey

      These folks are publishing on it.
      Extremophiles. 2003 Aug;7(4):261-6. Epub 2003 May 1.
      Metabolism of chloride in halophilic prokaryotes.
      Müller V, Oren A.
      Section Microbiology, Department Biology I, LMU München, Maria-Ward-Strasse 1a, 80638 München, Germany.
      While much understanding has been achieved on the intracellular sodium and potassium concentrations of halophilic and halotolerant microorganisms and on their regulation, we know little on the metabolism of anions. Archaea of the family Halobacteriaceae contain molar concentrations of chloride, which is pumped into the cells by cotransport with sodium ions and/or using the light-driven primary chloride pump halorhodopsin. Most halophilic and halotolerant representatives of the bacterial domain contain low intracellular ion concentrations, with organic osmotic solutes providing osmotic balance. However, some species show a specific requirement for chloride. In Halobacillus halophilus certain functions, such as growth, endospore germination, motility and flagellar synthesis, and glycine betaine transport are chloride dependent. In this organism the expression of a large number of proteins is chloride regulated. Other moderately halophilic Bacteria such as Halomonas elongata do not show a specific demand for chloride. A very high requirement for chloride was demonstrated in two groups of Bacteria that accumulate inorganic salts intracellularly rather than using organic osmotic solutes: the anaerobic Halanaerobiales and the aerobic extremely halophilic Salinibacter ruber. It is thus becoming increasingly clear that chloride has specific functions in haloadaptation in different groups of halophilic microorganisms.

  • Matvei

    J) A dream journal can help. That sort of exercise worked well for Edison.

  • Dennis Wilson


    The link above reviews both Professional Creativity and The Gordon Technique. I also offer another brainstorming technique that I find personally useful to free my mind from artificial “everyday” constraints. This technique actually led to the establishing of the web site linked above.

    What I did was create a document on my computer and then I keep adding to it as ideas come to me (the “waitress pad” mentioned elsewhere helps when away from the computer). The title of the document should explain how it works. It is “BIG Ideas awaiting a lottery win…”. Once an idea is in the computer file, it can serve as “idea fodder” by being reviewed and modified or enhanced.

    After my thinking had gone to extremes without consideration of means (proper
    brainstorming methodology), I realized that there were some items that I could actually do now, and the web site/brainstorming discussion is one of them.

  • carmelita olaes

    sorry in slp me in me opin compoter

  • Neontics

    Hi I’m a Brit and this is not an original idea but I kinda like this description and it may do for number 10 “I pressed down on the mental accelerator. The old lemon throbbed fiercely. I got an idea” P.G. Wodehouse

  • GoPrimalCostaRica

    I think you’ve hit the key with h. It really is about your passion. Thats what I have finally realized at 47 years old. So I am now following that passion! Thanks for the great thoughts and ideas James.

  • Louis Hawkins

    I did the Twitter thing and it was a total disaster. Humanity is so disgusting.

  • Maria Kojic

    Cook a dish without looking at a recipe, Think about what kind of taste you are craving and try to recreate it with your dish. The process of parsing the flavors and the ratios makes you open up your senses and to use other parts of your brain. Reverse engineering your meal makes it easier to reverse engineer other ideas or goals. Plus you have to eat anyway!

  • mehtivity

    coming up with ideas is something I find very easy. I have to screen my own ideas and only write down the ones I think are pretty good. Where I have a problem is with execution. I cannot move any of the ideas forward. And it’s not because I haven’t tried. I feel my day job is getting in the day. But ideas can’t pay the bills except they become real.

    • Stephan Iscoe

      Give them away :)
      Be a mentor, encourager, connector and catalyst for others.
      Your ideas will find a good home!

  • Stephan Iscoe

    Hi, James…I often come back to this post. Here’s another ‘tenth idea’ suggestion –
    it’s really a variant of D: De-activate a part of your brain…specifically sensory input.

    For instance, put on a blindfold, or plug your ears, or stay silent for a day… a local anesthetic is probably not practical but wearing mittens for a while is good, maybe find an immersion tank for a sensory deprivation experience. Any of these will force your brain to try and understand the world in a new way. Could lead to some interesting insights and new discoveries.

  • peter

    Hi James, first, as a first-commenter (is there such a word?) let me confess that I enjoy your blog grossly and read every word every since I discovered it.

    I understand (also the why) you suggest spreading yourself in as many directions you can in order to ‘get an idea, any idea’. How would you suggest reconciling it with the world where suddenly everyone is obsessed with execution and laser-sharp, single-minded focus?

  • Divesh

    Great ideas Ben! Easy and practical.

  • John

    Thanks for the idea

  • Cynthia

    I know this article was posted 8 months ago but I just want to say thank you to James for writing it. It was just what I needed as I try to launch a new business for the first time. I feel quite overwhelmed, especially by the fact that I will need to go to a foreign country to meet potential suppliers when I don’t know the local language and have zero experience importing goods. Several times I have thought about abandoning my business as my parents constantly pressure me to get a “real job.” But something inside me just cannot let go until I give it a real try. If I dont go the full mile I know that I will always regret giving into my fear, but the fear is palpable. James, your words “what might be too big for you (thinking of the next step) might not be too big for someone else (they might easily know, and not be afriad of, what the next step is)” have given me courage. Today my daily practice has been to list all of the necessary future steps that seem to big for me to do on my own and below them, list people who might be able to help me or at least direct me to friends or “friends of friends” that can help me turn these mountains into mole hills.

  • Arbico Gaming

    Thanks for the idea…

    Arbico Computers

  • albert mark

    information I haven’t been experienced such information in quite a long time.

  • Zachary (

    This article’s 2 yrs. old, but I’m new here and comments are still open, so here we go! Firstly, thanks for the post James, some great insights!

    I generally record an idea or two daily, but I love the idea of forcing oneself to knock out 10. Personally, my muse is in nature. I can sit down under a tree, take a few deep breaths, and it’s like the light haze over my brain will lift and I’ll be good to go.

    Ideas obviously can come at any moment – in the shower, while driving, while doing something completely unrelated – but I’m curious if you have a special place where you seem to have more ideas? Two weeks ago I spent a number of days at a lake here in Chile and had ideas aplenty. My major hindrance is my full-time job, I can’t wait to work more freelance and be able to dedicate more time + energy to writing.

    I’ve been in touch with a couple companies for part-time writing, but am curious if you have any good ideas of how to get a foot in the door as a free-lance writer, besides google searches.

    Thanks again!

  • MJ

    Another idea would be to go out, pick a random public place to just sit (a park, a coffee shop, a mall, etc) and observe what’s going on around you (what people are doing, how things are designed, what people are wearing, how people are interacting, etc.) soon you come up with ideas based on what you see. It happens to me all the time.

  • Josh

    I’m not trying to be spammy on here, but I just wanted to put this comment onto every article about becoming an idea machine…

    This has been hugely helpful in my life, so first of all, thanks James.

    Some days it’s harder to come up with what to make a list about, so I started this blog to help me (and hopefully other people too):

    If anyone needs help getting started or keeping up with the habit – please check it out, and if you have ideas for “idea lists” – please send them to me so I can add them!

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    I will prefer this
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